UNFORGETTABLE BOB BARR
By Dick McMichael
The first time we saw Bob Barr, the 17 members of our band were sitting on the stage at Jordan Vocational High School in Columbus, Georgia. We squirmed as he towered above us. “Let’s see how well you can follow me,” he said ominously, looking in my direction. A self-taught drummer, I had volunteered to play our battered bass drum. At that moment our band was truly the worst in the land. It was 1946, and we were the poor kids whose parents worked in mills and foundaries. Until a year earlier, we had neither instruments nor a director.
Now, Bob Barr had come to Jordan Vocational to decide if he would take the job. He had distinguished himself as a member of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. But we feared the moment he heard us, he would smile politely and walk away. His baton streaked downward and we began. It must have sounded terrible. We had inherited junkstore horns and drums. Most of us couldn’t read music. But Mr. Barr didn’t let on that we played badly. “Nice,” he whispered to the trumpeter whose first note miraculously hit on cue. “Not bad,” he lied as our last chord echoed in the auditorium. Then he said to me, “You followed very well.” It was the first compliment I had ever received. I was a classroom failure. Except for band practice, every school day was torture. “Will you take the job?” I blurted out as he turned to leave. He looked at me for the longest time, then said, “I probably will.” To this day, no one is certain why he did.
BEST IN THE LAND. Like our families, Robert M. Barr’s had little money as he was growing up. When he was five, his father died. His mother worked as a hotel maid in Konawa, Oklahoma. When he was eight, an old Seminole Indian taught him to play the trumpet. A local bandmaster coached him on the tuba and got him a scholarship to the Cincinnati Conservatory. There, Bob Barr won a national championship and joined the Indianapolis Symphony. Drafted into the Army in 1943, he was soon directing a soldiers’ chorus at Fort Benning, Georgia. “You want to be a real band?” he asked soon after he joined us. We nodded enthusiastically. “Then don’t be satisfied until you’re the best in the land!” He walked over to a pile of records he had brought and placed one on a turntable.
The auditorium reverberated with the majestic fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We listened in rapt silence. We had never heard such music before. “Beethoven was deaf when he wrote that,” Mr. Barr said at the music’s finale. “Are you deaf?” “No,” we answered, wide-eyed. “Do you have good eyes, strong hands and at least half a brain?” “Yes!” “Then,” he concluded with a flourish, “you can be the best!” We cheered. For the first time in our lives we let ourselves hope that maybe we could amount to something. Few Jordan students even dreamed of college or good jobs. We expected to take our parents’ places in the mills and factories. But Mr. Barr held out a different dream. “If you want to be the best,” he said on our last day of school that year, “it will mean giving it everything you have. Be here for practice tomorrow morning at eight o’clock.” We looked at him, stunned. “Tomorrow is Saturday and Monday we start summer jobs, ” we said. “No vacations, no weekends, no summers for us if you want to be winners,” he said. “Yes, sir,” we replied. And from that moment on we were his. Bob Barr and his wife, Annie, moved into a red-brick cottage near the school. Often after Saturday morning practice, Mr. Barr would invite the band home for breakfast. Annie welcomed all with smiles, hugs and endless stacks of pancakes. That little cottage became the band’s second home.
STAY WITH IT. One day Mr. Barr said to me, “You’re the percussion leader now. The one instrument I can’t play is the drum. So you’ll have to teach it for me.” It was one of his best tricks: entrust a youngster with responsibilities, then help them accomplish it. That summer was my happiest. I taught percussion by staying one lesson ahead of the class. When I couldn’t figure out a difficult passage, I would knock on Mr. Barr’s office door. Together we would talk a little timpani and cymbals and a lot about life. A Bob Barr rehearsal was a never-to-be-forgotten experience. When we reached our goals, he praised us with a smile or a wink. When we failed, he badgered and bullied us. He was known to stop the music, break his baton into little pieces and throw them at the offender. In two years the band grew from 17 to 85. Mr. Barr personally recruited most of the members. He scrounged up instruments. He visited parents to work out ways to keep every member in the band. He arranged loans for needy students.
Eventually, he persuaded the town to provide us with proper uniforms and a music room. Mr. Barr loved to plan our halftime shows for Friday-night football. He would walk on the hill above the field and shout orders at us “like Zeus from Mount Olympus,” as he put it. He would rush about pinning battery-powered lights to our shoes or stuffing our smallest player into an old bass drum for a surprise appearance at the show’s end. In 1948, my senior year, Mr. Barr appointed me drum major. “Next Friday I want you to try something new,” he told me. We were out on the practice field. Mr. Barr was dipping a baton into a can of kerosene. “Twirl it,” he said, handing it to me with both ends flaming. I swallowed hard and began. The flames singed my arms. I tossed the baton high into the air. We both watched the fiery missle falling. It landed, hissing on the ground. “Good work, Richard,” Mr. Barr said, relighting the baton. “Keep tossing it until you succeed.” Then he added something I have never forgotten: “Whatever you do,” he said, “stay with it. See it through. Master it.” During the next six days, I spilled a lof of kerosene and set a patch of field on fire. But on Friday when the lights went out, I tossed that flaming baton high into the air and caught it to thunderous cheers and applause. And I knew what Bob Barr was thinking: See, you can be the best if you give it everything you have.
TERRIBLE SILENCE. Over time we could hear the difference in our playing. Bob Barr could too. “You must have eaten raw meat and gunpowder for breakfast!” he’d exclaim when we captured the spirit of a great march. “Get this,” he told us after one game. “The coaches sneaked out of the locker room to hear you play!” Bob Barr wasn’t content with traditional band music. Once as the band sat behind closed curtains before a concert for townspeople, Mr. Barr made a surprise announcement, “Last weekend I told members of the Atlanta Symphony that we would perform the piece by Mendelssohn tonight, ” he said grinning wickedly. “They were shocked. They said even if I had successfully worked out an arrangement of the piece for a concert band, high school players couldn’t handle it.” The houselights dimmed. “I bet them you could,” Mr. Barr continued, “and they’ve come tonight to prove me wrong.” Everyone gasped, unable to believe musicians from a symphony orchestra would come to hear the Jordan Vocational High School Band. As the curtains opened, Mr. Barr whispered his usual advice, “Give it everything you’ve got!”. In moments, the band launched into Mr. Barr’s arrangement of Mendelssohn. When the piece ended, there was a terrible silence. No one moved. Suddenly, the applause began in waves. People rose to their feet and cheered. Mr. Barr just stood, smiling at his band, tears running down his face. And there, in the balcony, was a scene the band would never forget: members of the Atlanta Symphony standing, waving handkerchiefs and shouting bravos.
BAND OF ACHIEVERS. Just before my graduation in 1948, Mr. Barr called me to his office. “McMichael,” he said, “what do you really want to be?” “A radio announcer,” I said, sharing my secret dream. A few days later, he told me that Ed Snyder at radio station WDAK wanted to see me. Ed soon helped me land my first announcing job and launched my career in radio and television. Larold Ragland is another of the hundreds whose lives were influenced and careers helped by Bob Barr. Larold, as I recall him, was as thin as a rail and looked like he had just fallen off the turnip truck. But Mr. Barr saw something in him. One day, Mr. Barr handed him the band’s latest acquisition. “What’s this?” Larold said. “It’s a bassoon and you’re going to learn to play it.” Larold gave the instrument everything he had. Before long, he became the first (and only) bassoonist in our band. He went on to become a bassoonist with the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. John Henry Armstrong was failing at school, working nights at the mill and spending his spare time hanging around a local gym with a gang. Some of its members ended up in prison. Not John Henry. Bob Barr gave him a baritone horn and lessons. Then he scheduled so many practices that John Henry had to drop his gang friends. When John Henry didn’t have $7.50 to buy white shoes to match his uniform, Mr. Barr gave him shoes as a gift. Nevertheless, when John Henry acted up at rehearsal, Mr. Barr threw him out “forever.” The next day, Mr. Barr stopped practice and yelled, “Where’s John Henry?” “You kicked him out yesterday,” I reminded him. “Well, he back in today. Go find him.” When John Henry was wounded in Korea, Mr. Barr called his home every day for news. Later, John Henry completed university degrees and today helps handicapped kids. Because of Bob Barr’s example, we achieved in ways we hardly dared imagine. Robert George, whose trumpet skills were honed by Mr. Barr, went on to become chairman of Lummus Industries, the world’s largest manufacturer of cotton gins. Percussionist Jim Fletcher teaches humanities at a local high school and plays in the Columbus Symphony. And trumpeter Jimmy Cross became chairman of the SouthTrust National Bank in Phoenix City, Alabama.
VICTORY. Jimmy Cross was at New York City’s Lewisohn Stadium in 1952 when the Jordan Vocational High School band represented Georgia in the American Legion national competition. The band’s concert entry, Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, moved 50,000 Legionnaires to a standing ovation. “If we win a prize,” Mr. Barr said softly as the band stood at parade rest, “we will not throw our hats in the air. We will be disciplined. We will snap to attention and play our fanfare of thanks.” Already they had stood for three hours while other bands performed. Legs wobbled and uniforms were soaked with sweat. A majorette fainted and was carried off. Still, no one moved. The third-place winner was announced. Its members shouted, hugged and danced. When Mississippi won second place, Southern delegates yelled, screamed and sang a ragged “Dixie.” Then the top award was announced: “The gold cup goes to Jordan Vocational High School.” Two-hundred and twenty heels clicked together, and the audience cheered as the fanfare echoed throughout the stadium. For that moment, Bob Barr’s band was the best in the land. He had planted a dream in our hearts. And in six years that dream had born the sweet, ripe fruit of victory.
FINAL FANFARE. After nearly two decades at Jordan, Bob Barr moved east with Annie and their three children to accept a new high school teaching post. Then, on December 17, 1974, he suffered a stroke that made walking difficult and talking almost impossible. But recognition for his achievements continued. In 1987, the John Philip Sousa Foundation included his Jordan band in its Historic Role of Honor. On May 17, 1988, Robert M. Barr died in his sleep. He was 69. As the news spread, former band members began seeking a way to pay their respects to the man who had so changed their lives. A few months later, during a Jordan Vocational High School Friday-night football game, 110 of us from across the nation gathered to play a final fanfare of gratitude. Middle-aged or older, most of us hadn’t practiced in years. We couldn’t fit into the uniforms let alone march the full length of the field. Old instruments had been lifted from dusty cases and polished to perfection. Wrinkled sheets of long buried music, some of it written in Mr. Barr’s own loving hand, were taken out and fastened in our lyres. At halftime, we stood at parade rest. I had volunteered to announce the show on the stadium public-address system: “Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the Bob Barr Memorial Band.” Once again, Jimmy Cross lifted his trumpet. So did John Henry Armstrong, though he couldn’t play the notes. His vision momentarily blurred with tears. Grandmothers and grandfathers marched up the 50-yard line, playing our favorite “St. Louis Blues.” “Give it your best…” someone whispered and suddenly Mr. Barr seemed to be there on that hill, pacing back and forth, yelling orders like Zeus from Mount Olympus: “Play it! Give it everything you’ve got!” we heard him shout. And we knew that as much as he had loved his music, he loved us more. Once again we heard the drum major’s whistle and played with all our might. The people in the packed stands jumped up, cheering us on. Once again we were marching and playing in Bob Barr’s best band in the land.